Poetry, Epiphany, & Control
Updated: May 24
An essay in which I talk about puzzles, poetry, and teaching.
I used to work at an “immersive, interactive play-space” where people would pay money to solve elaborate mysteries in what appeared to be a huge museum. This was similar to an escape room except no one was trying to escape. Instead, people paid for a “story” and they could wander freely through the museum, solving one puzzle after another until they reached the end of their story. I played a cranky, hunch-backed janitor who followed people around and help them if they got stuck. But mostly, I’d heckle them. Each story ended with a bang, usually involving me or another actor. My favorite was the story in which people accused me of stealing radioactive material from the science exhibit. When they’d finally figure out it was me, they’d chase me around the museum with a giant metal detector.
The same time I worked this job, I led poetry workshops to teenagers on the weekends. I’d left my job as a public school teacher to get an MFA degree, and yet, here I was, hiding from people in a fake rainforest exhibit inside the sixth busiest shopping mall in the United States.
I’m thinking about this because it seems that writing poetry, teaching, and solving puzzles are related to each other. Thinking of yourself as teacher can make you a better game designer. Understanding how puzzles worked and (more importantly) how to guide someone through a series of puzzles can make us better poets and better teachers. But clarifying this relationship is helpful for another reason. It’s a helpful way to talk about the relationship between poetry and authoritarianism. Let me explain.
PUZZLES & PLEASURE
A professor once took great pleasure in explaining to me that a poem is not a puzzle. A puzzle can be solved, and if a puzzle can be solved (so it goes) then a poem can be solved. When we solve a puzzle, we figure it out, and it is less fun, less meaningful, than it was before. I agree, for the most part. Thinking of a poem as something that can be solved doesn’t feel like a productive way to go about reading and writing. But I also think this is a simple way to think about puzzles. (1)
We like puzzles because they’re fun, and they’re fun because they’re both difficult and revelatory. Puzzles that are too easy are boring, and puzzles that are too difficult are frustrating. We want to be challenged, but we don’t like feeling stuck. We also don’t like being shown the answer; we like to discover the answer ourselves. This is important because it suggests that an essential part of what makes puzzles fun is failure.
Compare this with what Philip Larkin says at the end of his essay “The Pleasure Principle.” He says, “I do not like having to try to make myself like things, I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.” I imagine that Larkin would hate escape rooms, and I imagine that as a student, Larkin would just want you to tell him which answers were on the test. I don’t like this essay very much, but it’s worth reading because of how he frames his disdain for difficult poetry. Poetry, for Larkin, is a “skilled recreation of emotion in other people.” Someone should be able to read a poem and (without much effort) feel exactly what the author felt when they were moved to write the poem. I agree that a poem that doesn't communicate isn’t much of a poem. I disagree in how best to communicate what we try to communicate in poetry. Failure to understand can also be enjoyable, especially when it leads to understanding.
Compare this also with what Jonathan Blow says about designing puzzles: “A puzzle is never just a puzzle. It’s the communication of an idea from the designer to the player and solving the puzzle is the player’s way of saying I understand.” A designer could explain exactly what they thought was cool about a puzzle, but this would be a lecture. Puzzles (and poems) are different ways of communicating understanding.
Dressed as a cranky janitor, I’d follow people while they tried to solve their puzzles. When they’d get stuck, the last thing I’d want to do was give them the answer. If they were supposed to count the number of flowers in a certain painting, for example, I wouldn’t say, go count the number of flowers in this painting. Instead, I’d stand next to it and aggressively sweep the floor. I’d mutter to myself or whistle a little song to get their attention. I’d ask them to tell me about their puzzle, and stand so that the answer (the painting) was over my shoulder. I’d play dumb. Oh, you’re looking for a painting. Huh. Good luck with that. I never wanted to help them directly. I wanted to put them next to answer and let them figure it out.
This balance between difficulty, failure, and discovery is what I want to talk about in relation to poetry and teaching. My approach to teaching and writing poems is essentially the same as my approach to guiding someone through a series of puzzles. The goal isn’t to frustrate or confuse anyone, it’s rather to admit that I can’t make someone have fun, I can’t make them learn, and I can’t make them feel whatever it is I want them to feel in a poem. I can only put them in proximity of meaning and let them discover it themselves.
PUZZLES, HAIKU, & EPIPHANIES
Haiku is the best example I can think of for this idea of poetry as discovery. Another example is poetry’s epiphanic mode, which Robert Langbaum has written about in World From Below. Both are distinct from poetry’s discursive mode, that is, poetry which tries to say something or make a point. Clearly, there isn’t an answer in poetry the same way there’s an answer to a puzzle. But one reason we read poetry is because it changes us. How does it change us? The poem as discovery still “makes a point,” as we come to understand something we did not know before, but whatever truth in the poem is found in how it changes us. Part of the meaning of the poem, then, is the experience of the poem.
Haiku as it grows out of Zen Buddhism is related to the concept of satori — the idea that any profound understanding of ourselves or our world can only be grasped intuitively, suddenly, and internally. Satori can’t be described, it can only be experienced. Trying to describe satori is like showing someone the answer to a puzzle. Too much clarity or conceptualization by the poet actually makes the realization of satori impossible for the reader. A haiku is at its best when the poet provides space for a reader to experience their own satori, and doesn’t push too hard for a particular interpretation.
This is what D. T. Suzuki says about haiku and satori in his book Zen and Japanese Culture: “Whatever art or knowledge a man gets by an external means is not his own, does not intrinsically belong to him; it is only those things evolved out of his inner being that he can claim as truly his own.” This openness or this not pushing too hard for any single interpretation can often be experienced as a difficulty, at least initially. After all, where do you go when you can go in any direction? Curiously, the koan also developed in the Zen tradition to help students by introducing resistance or confusion into the process of enlightenment. Suzuki goes on to say that, “Generally speaking, satori breaks out when a man is at the end of his resources.”
Epiphany as it grows out of Christianity is a “sudden manifestation of spirit,” a sudden leap in perception transforming how we see our world. The epiphany seems to be an essential part of poetry. For many of us, it’s why we read poetry. Often the poems which contain for us some sort of revelation are the poems that we remember the best.
When I think of the poetic epiphany, I think of James Wright’s poem “A Blessing.” The great Jim Ellefson would read this poem every year to kick off a weekend writing retreat for high school students. He’d ask us all to close our eyes and then he’d recite the poem by memory. I remember the feeling, sitting there in the auditorium, listening to him. The poem has glowed gently for me ever since:
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
I love this poem, but I’m skeptical of epiphanies. Before I talk about why, I want to talk more about the shape or structure of the epiphany as it often shows up in poetry.
Consider two other examples: the classic “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke and another favorite Wright poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Both are nearly perfect examples of the epiphanic mode. Both have the same shape. They describe a transformation on the part of the poet by moving from observation to realization. There is also a movement between what is outside the poet (in terms of what what they sense) to what is inside (in terms of what they feel). This is the shape of an epiphany. Lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm leads to the poet to the realization that “I have wasted my life.” I think of this shape as “A:B,” where A leads to B and both parts are more or less equal in value. Part of what this shape does is get the reader to consider how the two parts of the poem are related, thereby encouraging the reader toward a discovery.
I don’t want to explain the poem “A Blessing” (it doesn’t need much explaining) but I want to note that it also has the same A:B shape. The realization, “if I stepped out of my body I would break / into blossom,” emerges from the poet experiences leading up to that final line. I’m prompted to go back into the poem with the warmth of the ending in mind, trying to find what about the field or the ponies prompted this sudden realization. I call this a “flooding back” into the poem, and I find this kind of activity in poetry really enjoyable. When it works, it works.
Thinking about a poem’s shape in this way is helpful because if we can identify a shape that is too familiar or expected, then we can begin to imagine new ones. Knowing what we know about puzzles and haiku, can we play around with the shape of our poems to create more opportunities for discovery and surprise? For example, how would an epiphanic poem work if it didn’t have an A:B shape? What if a poem had the observation but withheld the realization?
We could say that a poem that has an observation but withholds its realization is a haiku. We’re given the experience, but we’re not told how to feel about it. We’re put near the answer to the puzzle, and we’re left to make sense of it on our own. This is one way I think of the distinction between the open and closed forms in poetry. Poets writing haiku try (paradoxically) to hide their presence in the poem. I think poets writing texts that are open, where a reading of the text doesn’t reinforce a single interpretation, try to do a similar thing. Again, this is about relinquishing control over what another person feels, but without abandoning completely the idea that part of what poetry does is communicate feeling. This is to accept that the most important part of this communication can’t be described, it can only be experienced. This is to say, simply, that haiku does the epiphany better because it doesn’t follow this A:B structure.
Maybe in some writers there’s a fear that readers won’t have the same experience as you, or that it won’t come through in the language. Maybe some believe that’s the poet’s job is to recreate in the reader the exact feeling as the poet felt prior to writing, full stop. This is a real fear, and it exists in teaching and puzzling just as it does in poetry. I want students to understand and grow. But I can’t control what they feel or how it changes them. Each poem can only be invitation to discover.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH EPIPHANY
I wish people had more epiphanies (the more the better, I say), and I wish people were more curious, more sensitive, and better prepared emotionally for wonder. My problem isn’t really with epiphanies at all. It’s with the “lyrical epiphanic mode,” especially as it takes this A:B shape that I’ve described. This shape feels closed to me, despite its (perhaps implicit) intention of being open. Lyn Hejinian describes the lyrical epiphanic mode as coercive. (2) I don’t like being told what to do or how to feel, which is what’s happening when a work is too closed, when the parts of the work are directing me to a singular interpretation.
Inviting a reader to discover is also inviting them to potentially misunderstand. Fragmentation, ambiguity, and incompleteness can be considered obstacles to meaning, but they’re also invitations for us to discover meaning. They’re parts of the poem that invite epiphany. The desire to give a sense of closure to a poem by ending it with a moment that feels epiphanic risks imposing upon the reader’s own sense of discovery. This is a subtle desire for control over the interpretation of the poem. The risk is that your realization (or the realization you think the poem needs) isn’t epiphanic because it is not actually a realization, it’s only a description of a realization. You can’t give the reader what you want by describing it to them.
And I wonder to what extent this desire for control in poetry relates to a similar desire in our personal and political lives. Poetry as it values things like uncertainty, ambiguity, discovery, and change, appears to be allergic to things like certainty and control. Who knows best what another person needs to learn? Who is given the authority to discover and interpret and who gets the interpretation described to them? How many of us are poets (and how many of us are not poets) because a teacher told us what a poem meant instead of inviting us discover it for ourselves? How many of us want our kids to sit in a chair and listen to the teacher? And what should we do with them when they don’t obey us?
(1) Mark Brown’s video “What Makes a Good Puzzle?” is a great place to start if you want to know more about puzzle design.
(2) Hejinian says in her introduction to “The Rejection of Closure, “The coercive epiphanic mode in some contemporary lyric poetry can serve as a negative model, with its smug pretension to universality and its tendency to cast the poet as guardian to Truth.” This essay is as good a place to start as any for a discussion of the "open" and "closed" distinction in poetry.